It seems like all anyone can talk about is Wall Street. Since the beginning of the financial crisis up through recent protests, it could be the Elm Street of our times. It should come as no surprise, then, that someone wrote a thriller about events at an investment firm leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. What does surprise me, however, is how complicated and humane the thriller turned out to be.

Margin Call takes place during a 24-hour period at an investment bank precipitating the 2008 financial crisis. The film starts with a sweep of layoffs during which Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), in charge of calculating risk and loss, is fired. As he’s escorted from the building, he hands a disk containing his most recent work to one of his employees, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and warns him to be careful. Peter works late that night trying to figure out what exactly he’s supposed to see in the data patterns on the disc. He comes to the startling conclusion that the bank is teetering on the edge of a financial disaster—and that they might be past the point of no return. He calls in coworker Seth (Penn Badgely) and their bosses Will (Paul Bettany) and Sam (Kevin Spacey) who call a major meeting of all the executives so they can figure out what exactly to do about the situation. The problem is, doing anything could expedite the crisis, but doing nothing could cause the entire company to go under.

Margin Call is a beautifully written film, its emotional complexity displayed most fully in a subplot about Sam’s dog. At the beginning of the film Sam complains to a coworker that his dog is dying and it’s costing him a thousand dollars a day. At the time, and the culture today being what it is, it’s easy to think that Sam is just another Wall Street big-wig with his priorities out of line. At the end of the film, however, we see Sam is more complex than he first seemed and in the final shots in which Sam buries his dog we have to see him as another person, with problems big and small, and that although it was a bad day for far-reaching reasons, the people involved were still people, however flawed.

That being a takeaway from the film adds to how interesting it was to watch the movie, considering current events. It would have been so easy to simply vilify everyone involved, but what the screenwriters did instead was both portray corruption and what amounts to atrocious luck. Further, that they created characters with complexities and implied back stories in a film that takes place over just twenty four hours displayed both skill and maturity.

I did think although the treatment of most characters was sympathetic, the film uses the person with the most power as the scapegoat. It becomes too easy to hate the boss, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), whose philosophy is, “Be best, be first of cheat” and who declares, “I didn’t get to this position by being smart.” Although I sort of understand that it was a kill or be killed situation, Tuld’s willingness to sink the ship comes off as borderline malignant.

Theses characters are skillfully portrayed by an outstanding cast. As far as I’m concerned Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci can do no wrong. I was surprised by how much the film was carried by younger cast members. Quinto and Badgely are the most heavily featured actors and their banter about work, money, and culture as the younger members of their department reflects both the motivations of twenty-somethings in the workforce and their skills as actors.
For a potentially dry subject matter, Margin Call delivered both thrills and interesting characters. For its intelligent writing and skillful filmmaking, I rate it 4/5 stars.

Margin Call was written and directed by J.C. Chandor. It runs 105 minutes and is rated R for language.